The Research Ethics Committee is at the service of researchers who may refer to it in various circumstances.
In the words of Éric Gagnon, "Ethics is more than a set of instructions, imperatives and prohibitions; it is a critical review of research, of the reasons and motives that guide a researcher and give meaning to his work. More than simply the application of a moral theory or code, it is first of all an effort at calm reflection, and it is around such a compelling vision of ethics that ethics reviews should be structured, and not on the basis of a timid and short-sighted deontology. The role of committees should be to stimulate and foster reflection, rather than to control researchers; to nurture a process of critical thinking which does not end with the granting of an ethics certification by the local committee, but which continues throughout all of the research project, a process of reflection which goes far beyond a committee and the assessment of each individual protocol. It seems to me that the time has come for committees to evolve from examiner and judge to facilitator and discussion leader. The researcher is responsible for his or her research. As for the committee, it is there to point out certain rules, remind the researcher of their responsibilities, prevent various problems, and above all provide food for thought regarding the potential consequences of what the researcher is planning to do and to raise the question of relevance, but without being the judge of the latter".
The committee is likely to be called upon in at least 6 circumstances:
- When researchers are faced with ethical dilemmas before, during, or after their research.
- When a sponsor seeks the opinion of the research ethics committee.
- When awareness of the ethical dimension of research is called for.
- When there is a need to reflect on the specifics of research ethics in the social sciences.
- When academic freedom of research is being challenged.
- When allegations of a breach of integrity are levelled by or against a researcher affiliated with the Institute.
These 6 aspects determine a comparable number of missions summarized below.
Mission 1: Respond to requests of researchers who are faced with ethical dilemmas before, during, or after their research.
The committee responds to requests of researchers who would not have otherwise found the opportunity to deal satisfactorily with matters of an ethical nature. The aim here is only to informally assist researchers confronted with ethical dilemmas. It goes without saying that there is no possibility of sanctions associated with this voluntary consultation.
Mission 2: Ensure that the requests and concerns of researchers working in sensitive areas are taken into consideration.
In certain research projects, researchers or their collaborators may be subject to particularly sensitive or even dangerous situations. Such risks are part and parcel of empirical social science research, which seeks to portray the complex nature of social life. The ethics committee will ensure that researchers having to deal with such circumstances are able to express their concerns and needs in a supportive environment which is conducive to listening. It will also help to identify, if necessary, appropriate suggestions for action.
Mission 3: Provide "ethical certificates" required by certain sponsors.
In this case as well, the committee will be consulted at the sole request of researchers. It will provide its opinion according to the sponsor's requirements or those of any other entity entitled to request an opinion. This opinion will be provided after the research project has been read and discussed with the sponsor from the perspective of research ethics.
Mission 4: Provide awareness support.
Awareness may apply to any aspect of a research project that is likely to involve ethical issues. Researchers of the Institute would be well advised to continue spontaneously organizing collective activities related to ethical issues which they consider to be a priority. Without ruling out the possibility that the committee may sometimes take a proactive role, its main role would be to support such initiatives.
Mission 5: Explore the specific characteristics of research ethics in the social sciences.
If the social sciences sometimes appear to be ill-equipped in the face of certain requirements relevant to other disciplines, this is in part due to the absence of systematic reflection on the ethical dilemmas of their field of inquiry. This is a lack which needs to be remedied, so that colleagues in other disciplines and the general public will see that we are actively concerned about such matters.
Mission 6: Defend independence of researchers and freedom of research.
Independence of research is constantly threatened. By virtue of the foregoing, any undue restriction of the freedom of a researcher is potentially damaging to the entire scientific community. It should therefore be defended collectively when it is endangered, whatever the origin of the danger might be. Insofar as research ethics should only restrain researchers when they step out of their role as researchers, it only makes sense that ethics committees should be at the forefront of defending freedom of research.
Mission 7: Mediate in the case of complaints regarding members of the Institute.
When a member of the Institute deems that transgressions of research ethics are occurring, this can be brought to the attention of various administrative bodies via the office of the rector of UCL. The ethics committee can in no way substitute itself for these bodies. However, a mediating role may prove useful, particularly in the case of allegations of minor ethical transgressions.
Even in the absence of sanctions, mediation is nevertheless a rather delicate task to carry out and one that is hardly compatible with the aforementioned missions. Consequently, it is conducted by a third party (the "mediator") and the other members of the ethics committee share no responsibility in it. They merely forward the file on to the mediator who can also be contacted directly. It is up to the mediator to meet with the different parties and see if an amicable agreement can be reached between them. The mediator is free to call upon other people to assist him and to consult any person he or she deems advisable.